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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

Via Bryan Caplan at EconLog:

“It’s only human,” you cry in defense of any depravity, reaching the stage of self-abasement where you seek to make the concept “human” mean the weakling, the fool, the rotter, the liar, the failure, the coward, the fraud, and to exile from the human race the hero, the thinker, the producer, the inventor, the strong, the purposeful, the pure–as if “to feel” were human, but to think were not, as if to fail were human, but to succeed were not, as if corruption were human, but virtue were not–as if the premise of death were proper to man, but the premise of life were not.”

He’s quoting the John Galt speech out of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I agree with Caplan that that is a great quote. And she was right: if we say “it’s only human” when we refer to someone being an asshole, or forgetful, or inconsiderate, or loses their temper, or some such, shouldn’t we also say “it’s only human” when a person is thoughtful, considerate, productive, courageous and adventurous”?

On a slightly different tack, though, I think people often use the “I am only human” when, as the use of the word “only” implies, we are talking about the limits, and inevitable fallibility of we creatures. But then again, it is precisely because of our limits and partial knowledge, that it is all the more admirable, and worthy of note, when we imperfect creatures do the right thing, do things well, and show excellent character.

19 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • Alisa

    A good quote. But, it can very much be a matter of context: it is one thing to say ‘I am only human’ as an excuse for one’s shortcomings, and quite another to say the same thing of others, in defense of theirs – especially when one may have been on the receiving end of those shortcomings. It’s the difference between judging oneself and judging others.

  • andrewf

    When I started reading the quote I thought it was Nietzsche. It could have come right out of the Genealogy of Morals. And so I find out on wikipedia that Rand studied Nietzsche heavily…isn’t wikipedia wonderful.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Sorry, but “only” is a diminutive and diminishes “human,” and that makes the phrase inappropriate for describing things that ornament the human condition. “Very human” might work in both cases, though.

  • Mike James

    An excellent quote, and it neatly illustrates why hearing the phrase, “One can’t legislate morality” is so annoying, makes me grind my jaws so hard that tooth chips fly from my mouth. A law is nothing but morality legislated.

    The Law is that entity which is set up over us all (in theory, in Western countries, in practice this varies) and into which is inserted various notions of right and wrong. Don’t murder people, or burn down someone’s house because you think it is a good idea when you’re drunk, or in North Carolina, for a recent example, send the kid to school with turkey and cheese in her brown paper bag.(Link)

    “You can’t legislate morality” is a crummy little dodge to excuse dodgy behavior, in the same spirit as “It’s only human”.

    That’s all I have–“It’s only human”, “You can’t legislate morality”, excuses both.

  • Mike James

    I ought to be clear that the example I gave in my comment above, of the 4 year old having the lunch her mother made for her inspected by a zealous defender of The People’s Interest In All Children Receiving Adequate Nutrition, is more an example of regulatory excess, but this is a result of freely elected legislators granting their power to an entity created by themselves. This casts the officials of a given agency in the role of secular clergy, given power to make moral judgements of the people subject to their authority.

    At least that’s how it seemed to me when reading the article to which I linked. I still hope to learn of a mob tracking down the man from the N.C. Division of Early Childhood Development(Link)

  • Tedd

    Mike James:

    I agree with your wider point, but it seems to me that you’ve imprisoned yourself in a hell of your own making. The phrase “you can’t legislate morality” is not used to mean “you can’t codify morality” — at least, I’ve never heard anyone use it that way. It’s used to mean “you can’t cause moral behaviour by invoking laws,” which seems to me to be entirely uncontroversial.

  • The word “animal” has similar resonances. If somebody disapproves of a behaviour, it’s “only an animal would do that”. If they approve, it’s “all of Nature does that”.

    The whole thing reeks of prejudgement.

  • Tedd

    Also, what PersonFromPorlock said.

  • Philip Scott Thomas

    Despite having read most of her work, I’ve never rated Ms. Rand as much of a writer. Yet her continued used of the conditional subunctive is enough to make me reconsider my opinion.

  • Philip Scott Thomas

    Oops. Make that ‘subjunctive’. Sorry.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Has anyone else noticed how Rand is trapped in western number paradigms? Galt gives us seven examples of bad humans, and then seven examples of good! I have read that she played with hebrew ideas that there must be 36 saints on the Earth all the time- and Dagny is introduced to 36 people in That Valley. Any others?

  • Hmm

    As with all utterances, context and perception define the phrase “It’s only human”.

    Words are a tool and Ayn Rand, only too well, understood how this tool was being abused to perform bad things and yet cause those actions to be acknowledged as (politically~quasi-)good…

    In the John Galt Speech using the phrase “It’s only human” she pinpoints how three simple good words can hide a multiplex of lies and distortions…. and more:

    When used in such a way – short memorable (stock) phrases skew language towards the political…becoming a social hint to act in a certain fashion.., and later as a warning to toe the line. It’s not that the language is bad or lacking – it is that the context is changed in pursuit of subtle manipulation.

    “It’s only human” is perfectly acceptable as a phrase to use to define all the limits of humankind, both good and bad, up, down and squirly. Ayn Rand was pointing up that it was pschologically manipulative to use it in the way described. Ace has a post on something similar at the moment (Thought)

  • Jay Thomas

    I want to speak out in defense of the phrase as its traditionally used, ie to highlight our weaknesses and failings. Human beings fuck up a lot… in a multitude of ways. An aspect of the human condition that we all have to come to terms with is the gap between the kind of people we can imagine and the kind of people that actually exist. Everyone can imagine an idealized fully realized version of themselves stripped of frailties and flaws. Hero images suffuse our culture and our dreams. In our actual messy lives though, we will always fall short of the level of excellence we can imagine. Learning from your own mistakes and those of others is vital sure, but so is learning to accept that you and those around you will continue to make them.

  • Regional

    For give if I’m wrong but weren’t all the great inventors only human?

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Yes, Regional, we are.

  • Alisa

    Jay Thomas: indeed.

  • that passage in Galt’s speech must come after i gace up reading it and skipped to the end.
    Oh well, I’m only human…

  • Paul Marks

    Andrew F.

    Rand did read Nietzsche – but this element in Nietzsche did not win out within him (this will confuse those who think that Rand was a follower of Nietzsche – actually if the above quote is what Nietzsche should have been then, in the end, Nietzsche was not a follower of Nietzsche).

    The element in Nietzche that celebrates human achievement and virtue is what he calls “Athena” (after the Green Goddess of achievement and humans at their best).

    But this is not the dominant theme in Nietzche – for example he even denies free will (the human capacity of choice – the basis of Athena).

    To Nietzche the two real powers are Appolo (the “illusion” of morality and so on) and Dionysius (instint – wallowing in filth and so on).

    And he chooses Dionysius (to him, in some moods, humans can not really choose at all – see above).

    Ayn Rand may be a follower of Athena (in an athiest sense) – but Nietzsche (most of the time) is NOT.

    Also people who associate Rand with Nietzsche also overlook the influence of ARISTOTLE upon her (this is astonishing – given the number of times Rand mentions Aristotle).

    German education (unlike Austrian university education) downplayed Aristotle (because Aristotelianism was associated with the Catholic Church).

    I believe this led to a fatal lack of balance (of realism – with both a big and a small “R”) in German philosophical thought – including that of Nietzsche.

    I would argue that Carl Menger (the Founder of the Austrian School of Economics) was operating from a different PHILOSOPHICAL foundation from the German “Historical School” economists of his time (and that this led to the “war of method”).

    Someone like Franz Branteno (who greatly influenced Menger philosophically) would have had problems emerging in the German educational system.

    By the way – Rand is not “trapped” by numbers, she uses them as a way of getting the reader’s attention (at several levels).

    Again this goes back to classical ideas of how a speaker can engage the attention of hearers.

  • Paul Marks

    In the interests of fairness….

    I should state that Brentino did go to university in Gemany – it was only to get an important post that he went to Vienna.

    I still think he would have found it very hard to get an important position in the Geman system.